‘We got the right guys,’ retired ATF agent says of controversial drug stings
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Chris Bayless looks the part of the tough, streetwise guy with his salt-and-pepper hair pulled back in a ponytail and wearing a black leather Harley Davidson jacket.
For most of his 30-year career with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Bayless worked undercover, infiltrating outlaw biker clubs, white supremacist groups and street gangs. His conversation’s still rife with the jargon of the street, talking of going after criminals who are willing to “get down” — or kill.
Now that he’s retired, Bayless feels free to also go after critics of the ATF’s controversial drug “stash-house” stings, which he defends as targeting some of the most violent criminals.
Among those critics is Chicago’s chief federal judge, Ruben Castillo. In a ruling in March, Castillo said these stings should be “relegated to the dark corridors of our past,” saying a disproportionate number of black men are arrested.
Speaking out in interviews with the Chicago Sun-Times, Bayless offered unusual insight into what he says many who still work for the ATF feel about the courts’ take on their investigative techniques.
He defends the ATF and its agents, saying they aren’t racially biased and that many of the neighborhoods the stings aim to make safer are predominantly black.
He points out that most of the defendants he busted in one such sting in 2013 went on to commit new crimes while free on bail. One is now charged with committing a murder while on bail, and another with shooting and wounding a Chicago cop.
“We got the right guys,” Bayless says.
The former agent says Castillo has tarnished the reputation of the ATF with his harsh ruling.
“His opinion gets in the newspaper and paints us all as a bunch of racists, and that couldn’t be further than the truth,” Bayless says. “The Supreme Court has said time and time again that you might not like the techniques that law enforcement uses, but, as long as they are within the law, that’s how our system works.”
A spokeswoman for Castillo says the judge’s opinion and rulings “speak for themselves.” A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago won’t comment.
The ATF has been conducting drug stash-house investigations in Chicago since the 1990s. According to Bayless, this is how they’re done:
- An ATF informant reports having spoken with someone who wants to commit a “lick,” or robbery.
- The informant introduces the person to an undercover ATF agent posing as a disgruntled courier for a Mexican drug cartel.
- The undercover agent agrees to set up a heist of what’s actually a fictitious cartel stash house — a building where dozens of kilograms of drugs supposedly are stored.
- The would-be robber recruits others willing to rob a stash house protected by armed guards.
- The day of the holdup, the crew is arrested while meeting with the agent at a predetermined staging area.
In recent years, defense lawyers have challenged the stings as unconstitutionally biased against African-Americans.
In a rare hearing last year, nine federal judges in Chicago — sitting as a group — heard testimony about whether they should toss out 12 cases they were overseeing. None of the 12 cases has been dismissed.
In March, Castillo issued a mixed ruling covering two of those cases in which he urged the ATF to stop doing these stings.
Between 2006 and 2013, the chief judge noted, nearly 79 percent of the defendants in these cases were African American, 10 percent Hispanic and 12 percent white. During the same period, the adult population of the court’s 18-county Northern Illinois district was 18 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic and 63 percent white.
“These numbers generate great disrespect for law enforcement efforts,” Castillo wrote. “To put it simply, our criminal justice system should not tolerate false stash-house cases in 2018.”
Bayless says comparing the racial breakdown of stash-house defendants with the mostly rural population of the court’s geographically sprawling jurisdiction is faulty logic.
The ATF stash-house stings touched eight counties. But most of the defendants were from Chicago.
“With our limited resources, if we are going to affect the most violent place with the most violent crime, unfortunately it’s disproportionately on the South Side and West Side of Chicago,” the retired agent says.
Despite his distaste for the stings, Castillo decided not to throw out the two cases he oversaw. He said he wasn’t convinced by testimony from an expert presented by defense attorneys, including Judith Miller, an assistant clinical professor of law at the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School.
Miller tells the Sun-Times, “I disagree with the ultimate conclusion that Judge Castillo reached.”
She says there’s strong evidence the ATF discriminated on the basis of race in conducting the sting but declined to comment further.
Since Castillo’s ruling, four defendants in Castillo’s court have pleaded guilty. Two others have signaled they will.
In other courts, 24 defendants have pleaded guilty since Castillo’s ruling, and another 10 plan to join them.
In all, 94 people have been charged in stash-house stings since 2006, Castillo said in his ruling.
Richard Posner, a prominent former federal appellate judge in Chicago, also found the ATF stings repugnant. In 2012, the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, on which Posner sat, upheld the lengthy sentences that Leslie Mayfield and his co-defendants received. Mayfield argued that he was illegally entrapped.
Offering a dissenting opinion, Posner agreed that Mayfield’s co-defendants were guilty but said Mayfield should get a new trial and the chance to present an entrapment defense.
Mayfield’s criminal past includes a conviction for attempted murder and armed robbery in 1994. But he told the court he’d gone straight and was “working at an honest job” when caught in the sting, Posner wrote.
The fictitious stash house was a potential “goldmine,” Posner said: Mayfield thought his share of the drugs would have been worth $135,000. That might have induced Mayfield to do something he wouldn’t normally do.
Posner also found Mayfield’s sentence — 27 years — far too high, saying it should have been around five years.
Law enforcement agencies use stash-house stings — and the fictitious dozens of kilos of drugs the defendants think they’ll steal — to “increase the amount of drugs that can be attributed to the persons stung, so as to jack up their sentences,” Posner wrote, citing a New York University law school research paper that Bayless says misrepresented how the cases are handled.
The judge also wrote that stash-house raids don’t reduce the amount of drugs in circulation but, instead, do the opposite because they reduce the likelihood that real stash houses will be robbed.
In 2013, the same appeals court reconsidered Mayfield’s conviction. This time, he got a new trial and was allowed to present an entrapment defense. Instead, he pleaded guilty in March and now awaits resentencing, facing up to 20 years in prison.
“This is not a drug strategy; this is violent crime we are talking about,” Bayless says in response to what Posner wrote. “This is about affording an opportunity for violent people to do their violence. And it allows us to catch them doing it.”
Miller and the rest of the defense team argued in court that the ATF “hand-picks all of its targets” and that agents can walk away if the assembled crew doesn’t meet the ATF’s stated criteria.
Defense lawyers also said that 19 of the 94 stash-house defendants had no prior convictions before their arrests in the sting.
But Bayless says the the ATF agents don’t pick those crews; defendants like Mayfield do. And he says those recruited to rob the stash houses tend to be the worst criminals in a neighborhood even if their arrest records don’t show that. He says the defendants recruit people “with a reputation within the criminal community as a trigger-puller or somebody who can ‘take care of business.’ ”
Bayless scoffs at Castillo’s statement that, “all too often, the government’s lucrative trap attracts potential defendants with minor criminal records who might otherwise have never attempted a fictitious crime of this nature.”
“This opportunity is only appealing to criminals who are willing to kill or be killed for profit,” Bayless says. “They also have to have the connections within the criminal community to sell the cocaine and turn it into cash. What law-abiding citizen is willing and able to do that?”
When Mayfield and his crew were arrested in 2009 in Aurora, they were found carrying four guns, latex gloves, bulletproof vests, ski masks and a bag for the cocaine they planned to steal, Bayless notes.
Though the ATF is now taking heat in Chicago’s federal courts for the stash-house cases, the FBI was in charge of one of the 2013 investigations at the center of the controversy. An FBI informant got a call from Paul “Big Time” Davis, a convicted felon who wanted to rob a drug dealer, Bayless says. The informant was a convicted robber the FBI had paid more than $360,000 for years of tips, court records show.
Posing as a cartel drug courier at the behest of the FBI, Bayless met with Davis and agreed to take him to a stash house that was supposed to have 50 kilos of cocaine. Bayless told him he wouldn’t know the location until 30 minutes before he was supposed to pick up three kilos. In reality, there was no stash house.
Davis later said he believed they were going into a situation where the stash-house guards “will kill.” Before the sting, Davis told Bayless that his crew was ready to shoot the guards, records show.
“It won’t be a person there without doubt that will pull a trigger. You understand? Because I don’t want to have to try to shoot all four f—— people myself,” Davis told Bayless. “They move, they flinch, they dead.”
Davis told the informant he planned to double-cross Bayless and rob him of his three kilos, too.
Later, Bayless met with Davis and most of his crew, all African-American, including Dante Jeffries, Jayvon Byrd, Alfred Withers, Julius Morris, Vernon Smith and Corey Barbee, in a Dominick’s parking lot on the South Side.
Davis brought duct tape he’d bought at a Home Depot across the street, and they drove from the Dominick’s to another spot where they plotted the heist. All of the crew members wore dark colors. Davis told Barbee to yell “Cook County police” when they jumped out of Bayless’ van to confuse the guards he believed would be there.
Before the crew left for the stash house, SWAT agents from the ATF and FBI swooped in, making arrests and recovering three guns. Four crew members — Withers, Byrd, Davis and Barbee — later told authorities they planned to rob a stash house.
Bayless points out that all seven crew members had extensive arrest records and five had multiple convictions. He says they were “enforcers” for the Gangster Disciples street gang and that Davis told him “all of that violence you hear about in Englewood, these are the guys responsible for it.’ “
In 2014 — a year after that sting — federal prosecutors withdrew the indictments against the men as part of a legal strategy to fight a request from their defense lawyers to have the prosecution turn over extensive information related to claims of racial bias.
Prosecutors asked to keep the men in jail while they resolved the legal fight over records. But U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael T. Mason released many of them on bail.
While free, five of the defendants were charged with committing new crimes. Byrd was arrested on a murder charge in 2017. Jeffries was charged with illegal gun possession in 2014 and attempted murder in 2017. Withers was busted for illegal gun possession in 2016, Smith on a similar charge last year and Morris for domestic violence and assault in 2017.
Byrd is accused of killing Jerry L. Thomas on July 6, 2017.
Authorities say Jeffries shot and wounded a Chicago cop on July 21, 2017. She was responding to the robbery of a store in Back of the Yards where three employees were tied up in a back room.
Both men are being held in the Cook County Jail.
Defendants in other stash-house cases also were arrested while on bail, records show. One of them, Cornelius Sistrunk, was charged in a stash-house case in 2013 and later charged with robbery in 2015.
“These guys aren’t choir boys,” Bayless says.
Castillo’s comments about ATF stash-house stings have been disheartening for the agents working to rid neighborhoods of their most violent elements, according to Bayless.
“About half the time, the guys who cooperate say, ‘Yeah, we were going to kill the undercover agent,’ ” Bayless says. “The reason they don’t kill you is that you still gotta give them the address of where it’s at. They gotta keep you alive. So even though you’re looking at someone who’s pretty much gonna kill you in a minute, they still gotta keep you alive long enough to get them to the stash house to rob it.”
In one case — this one involving white defendants — one of them was accused of plotting to kill Bayless and then poking holes in his stomach to make it easier to sink his body in a river, court records show.
Sources now working for ATF say the criticism the agency has taken over the stash-house stings has had an impact. They say they can’t see the agency launching similar stings here for now.
Bayless says that would hurt communities racked with violence.
“I wouldn’t stop doing these cases,” he says. “I wouldn’t stop being proactive. There is a sense of satisfaction when you rid the community of some freaking uber-violent people.”